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For richer, for poorer

Forget aid—people in the poorest countries like Haiti need new cities with different rules. And developed countries should be the ones that build them

By Paul Romer   February 2010

Lacking electricity at home, students work under the dim lights of a parking lot at G’bessi Airport in Conakry, Guinea

On the first day of TEDGlobal, a conference for technology enthusiasts in Oxford in July 2009, a surprise guest was unveiled: Gordon Brown. He began his presentation with a striking photograph of a vulture watching over a starving Sudanese girl. The internet, he said, meant such shocking images circulated quickly around the world, helping to mobilise a new global community of aid donors. Brown’s talk ended with a call to action: developed countries should give more aid to fight poverty.

When disaster strikes—as in the recent Haiti earthquake—the prime minister is right. Even small amounts of aid can save many lives. The moral case for aid is compelling. But we must also remember that aid is just palliative care. It doesn’t treat the underlying problems. As leaders like Rwandan president Paul Kagame have noted, it can even make these problems worse if it saps the innovation, ambition, confidence, and aspiration that ultimately helps poor countries grow.

So, two days later, I opened my own TED talk with a different photo, one of African students doing their homework at night under streetlights. I hoped the image would provoke astonishment rather than guilt or pity—for how could it be that the 100-year-old technology for lighting homes was still not available for the students? I argued that the failure could be traced to weak or wrong rules. The right rules can harness self-interest and use it to reduce poverty. The wrong rules stifle this force or channel it in ways that harm society.

The deeper problem, widely recognised but seldom addressed, is how to free people from bad rules. I floated a provocative idea. Instead of focusing on poor nations and how to change their rules, we should focus on poor people and how they can move somewhere with better rules. One way to do this is with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of new “charter cities,” where developed countries frame the rules and hundreds of millions of poor families could become residents.

How would such a city work? Imagine that a government in a poor country set aside a piece of uninhabited land. It invites a developed country to enter into a new type of partnership, in which the developed country sets up and enforces rules specified in a charter. Citizens from the poorer country, and the rest of the world, would be free to live and work in the city that emerges. It could create economic opportunities and encourage foreign investment, and by using uninhabited land it would ensure everyone living there would have chosen to do so with full knowledge of the rules. Roughly 3bn people, mostly the working poor, will move to cities over the next few decades. To my mind the choice is not whether the world will urbanise, but where and under which rules. Instead of expanding the slums in existing urban centres, new charter cities could provide safe, low-income housing and jobs that the world will need to accommodate this shift. Even more important, these cities could give poor people a chance to choose the rules they want to live and work under.

To understand why rules are the way to harness self-interest, and why such new cities could work where old cities have not, look again at the example of electricity. We know from the developed world that it costs very little to light a home—on average, less than one US penny an hour for a 100-watt bulb. We also know that most poor people in Africa are not starving. They could afford some light. Africans do not lack electricity because they are too poor. Indeed, reliable power is so important for education, productivity and job creation that it would be more accurate to say that many in Africa are poor because they don’t have electricity. So why don’t they?

Why the right rules matter

Consider development the other way round. US customers have cheap electricity mostly because rules channel self-interest in the right way. Some protect investments made by utilities, others stop these companies abusing their monopoly power. With such rules, companies win; efficient providers make a profit. But customers win too; they get access to a vital resource at low cost. It’s the absence of these rules that explains why many Africans don’t have electricity at home. It might seem a simple insight, but it took economists a long time to understand it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, economic models treated ideas as public goods, meaning that once one existed it was assumed to exist everywhere. Some ideas are like this—for example, the formula for oral rehydration therapy, the mixture of sugar, salt, and water, that stops children dying from diarrhoea. No one owns it and you can find it easily online. If all ideas were like this it would be easier for poor countries to grow. But they aren’t: patents and other legal rules stop some ideas spreading, while others are just easy to keep secret.

When I started graduate school in the late 1970s I was convinced economists underestimated the potential for new ideas to raise living standards. The body of work that grew out of my PhD thesis came to be called new growth theory, or post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory in Britain (when it was infamously taken up by new Labour in the mid-1990s). Initially I just wanted to understand how good ideas, like those which make cheap electric light possible, were discovered. But then another topic began to interest me: why didn’t ideas common in some parts of the world spread to others?

Put simply, some countries are better able to establish the type of rules that help good ideas spread, while others are trapped by bad rules that keep ideas out. The rules stopping cheap electricity, for instance, are not hard to identify. The threat of expropriation or political instability stops many western electricity companies moving into Africa. Those that do set up there can exploit their power as monopolists to charge excessive prices. Often they offer bribes to stop rules being enforced, or pay bribes themselves. Good rules would stop all this. So to unleash the potential of the marketplace, poor countries need to find a way to create good rules.

The challenge in setting up good rules lies in solving what economists call “commitment” problems. How can a developing country promise to keep the rules that govern investment fair? Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling illustrates this problem with the example of a kidnapper who decides he wants to free his victim. But the kidnapper worries that the victim, once released, will go to the authorities. The victim, eager to be free, promises not to—but there is no way for him to guarantee he will keep quiet. As a result, the kidnapper is compelled to kill the victim, even though both would be better off if a binding agreement could be made. Poor countries face similar problems: their leaders cannot make credible commitments to would-be investors.

Rich nations use well-functioning systems of courts, police and jails, developed over centuries, to solve such problems. Two people can make a commitment. If they don’t follow through, the courts will punish them. But many developing countries are still working their way down the same arduous path. Their leaders can fight corruption and establish independent courts and better rules over property rights, but such moves often require unpopular measures to coerce and cajole populations, making internal reforms excruciatingly slow. Subsequent leaders may undo any commitments they make. A faster route would seem to be for a developed country to impose new rules by force, as they did in the colonial period. There is evidence that some former colonies are more successful today because of rules established during their occupations. Yet any economic benefits usually took a long time to show up, and rarely compensated for years of condescension and the violent opposition it provoked. Today, violent civil conflicts have led some countries to again consider military humanitarian intervention, but this can only be justified in extreme circumstances. My point was that there is a middle ground between slow internal reforms and risky attempts at recolonialisation: the charter city.

There are large swathes of uninhabited land on the coast of sub-Saharan Africa that are too dry for agriculture. But a city can develop in even the driest locations, supported if necessary by desalinated and recycled water. And the new zone created need not be ruled directly from the developed partner country—residents of the charter city can administer the rules specified by their partner as long as the developed country retains the final say. This is what happens today in Mauritius, where the British Privy Council is still the court of final appeal in a judicial system staffed by Mauritians. Different cities could start with charters that differ in many ways. The common element would be that all residents would be there by choice—a Gallup survey found that 700m people around the world would be willing to move permanently to another country that offers safety and economic opportunity.

I started thinking about city-scale special zones after writing a paper about Mauritius. At the time of its independence in 1968, economists were pessimistic about this small island nation’s prospects. The population was growing rapidly, new jobs were scarce in its only real export industry (sugar), and high tariffs designed to protect small companies manufacturing for the domestic market meant no companies could profitably use their workers to manufacture goods for export. It was politically impossible to dismantle these barriers to trade, so policymakers did the next best thing: they created a special category of companies, ones said to be in a “special export zone.” The zone didn’t physically exist, in that these companies could locate anywhere on the island, but companies “inside” the zone operated under different rules. They faced no tariffs, or limits on imports or exports. Foreign companies in the zone could enter and exit freely, and keep profits they earned. Domestic companies could enter too. The only quid pro quo was that everyone in the zone had to produce only for export, so as not to compete with domestic firms. The zone was a dramatic success. Foreign businesses entered. Employment grew rapidly. The economy moved from agriculture to manufacturing. Once growth was underway, the government reduced trade barriers, freeing up the rest of the economy.

The history of development is littered with failed examples of similar zones. Mauritius was unusual because it had low levels of crime and the government already provided good utilities and infrastructure. The zone only had to remove one bad form of governance: trade restrictions. Yet many developing countries still can’t offer the basics, another reason why building new cities is an attractive option. Cities are just the right scale to offer basic conditions. So long as they can trade freely, even small cities are big enough to be self-sufficient. Yet because they are dense they require very little land.

To apply the lessons from Mauritius in countries with pervasive problems, the key is to create zones with new rules that are big enough to be self-contained. Big enough, that is, to hold a city. Then let people decide whether to enter.

When I returned to Mauritius in 2008, I outlined my ideas to Maurice Lam, head of the Mauritian Board of Investment. Maurice splits his time between Mauritius and Singapore. He and I knew that Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, had experimented in the 1990s with a similar idea, establishing new cities that Singapore could help to run in China and Indonesia. These ran into difficulties because the local governments retained discretionary powers that they used to interfere after Singapore had made large investments in infrastructure. This convinced us that explicit treaties reassigning administrative control over land were needed. Maurice also said that countries in Africa would be open to this kind of arrangement. Some officials, eager to make a credible commitment to foreign investors, had already made informal inquiries about whether Mauritius would be willing to take administrative control over their special export zones.

What could go wrong?

Some economists have objected that a charter agreement between two countries will not necessarily solve the commitment problem that lies at the heart of development failures. The leaders of many countries enter into agreements, sometimes with the best intentions, that subsequent leaders or officials do not honour—as Lee Kuan Yew found to his cost. To guard against such an outcome, partners in a charter city must negotiate a formal treaty, like the one that gave the British rights in Hong Kong (see box, right). Under this arrangement the only way for the host country to renege on its commitment would be to invade. Even governments that resent having signed such agreements in the past almost always respect them. The Cubans hate the agreement that gave the US control of Guantánamo Bay, but learned to live with it.

Another objection comes from those who study urbanisation. They point out that the location of most existing cities is determined by accidents of history or geography, and suggest, correctly, that there are geographical requirements for a city to survive. But they are surely wrong to think that all the good sites for cities are taken. Here distance matters, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle: Mauritius continues to develop despite its remote location. Flat land is cheaper to build on, but many cities have developed on hilly terrain. A river can provide fresh water and access to the sea, but with desalination, so too can any coastal location where a port could be built. Access to the sea is the only real necessity—as long as a charter city can ship goods back and forth on container ships, it can thrive even if its neighbours turn hostile or unstable. And there are thousands of largely uninhabited coastal locations on several continents that could qualify.

Other urban economists fear new cities will repeat the unimpressive history of government-planned ones like Brasília, or Dubai’s recent bust. But these are both extreme examples. The state was too intrusive in Brasília and almost non-existent in Dubai. Hong Kong is the middle ground, a state ruled by laws not men, but one that leaves competition and individual initiative to decide the details.

The experience in Hong Kong offers two further lessons. The first is the importance of giving people a choice about the rules that govern them. Hong Kong was sparsely populated when the British took over. Unlike other colonial systems, almost everyone chose to come and live under the new system. This gave the rules proposed by the British a degree of legitimacy they never had in India, where the rules were imposed on often unwilling subjects. This is why building new cities, rather than taking over existing ones, is so powerful.

The second lesson is the importance of getting the scale right. Most nations are too large to update all their rules and laws at once. The coercion needed to impose a new system on an existing population generates friction, no matter who is in charge. Leaders on mainland China understood this when they attempted to copy the successes of Hong Kong by gradually opening a few places, such as the new city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. Yet while nations are too big, towns and villages are too small. A village cannot capture the benefits that arise when millions of people live and work together under good rules. Cities offer the right scale for dramatic change.

The demands of migration

As billions of people urbanise in the coming decades, they can move to hundreds of new cities. The gains new cities can unleash are clear. Picture again the students studying under the streetlights. By themselves, political leaders in poor countries won’t provide cheap, reliable electricity any time soon. They can’t eliminate the political risk that holds back investment or ensure adequate regulatory controls. But working with a partner nation, they can establish a new city where millions of young people could pay pennies to be able to study at home. And as these cities seek out residents, the leaders and citizens in existing countries will face the most effective pressure for good governance—competition.

We know from history that the competitive pressures created by migration can boost economic growth. But strong opposition to immigration in the world’s richest economies prevents many people from moving to better systems of rules. Charter cities bring the good systems of rules to places that would welcome migrants. Indeed, charter cities offer the only viable path for substantial increases in global migration, bringing good rules to places that the world’s poor can easily and legally access, while lessening the contentious political frictions that arise from traditional migration flows.

Intelligently designed new cities can offer environmental benefits too, a point increasingly made by environmentalists like Stewart Brand (see p39.) For example, Indonesia emits greenhouse gases at a rate exceeded only by China and the US. This rate is partly due to logging practices in its rainforest, and efforts to clear land for palm-oil plantations and pulp-producing acacia trees. Brand has cited the experience of Panama to demonstrate the green potential of urbanisation: as people there left slash-and-burn agriculture for work in cities, forest regenerated on the land they left behind. Similar migration to new cities in places like Indonesia could do much to reduce carbon emissions from the developing world.

Investment in charter cities could also make more effective the aid rich countries give. The British experience in Hong Kong shows that enforcing rules costs partners very little, but can have a huge effect. Because Hong Kong helped make reform in the rest of China possible, the British intervention there arguably did more to reduce world poverty than all the official aid programmes of the 20th century, and at a fraction of the cost. And, if many such cities are built, fewer people will be trapped in the failed states that are the root cause of most humanitarian crises and security concerns.

There are many questions to be resolved before the first city is chartered. Is it better to have a group of rich nations, or a multinational body like the EU, play the role the British played in Hong Kong? How would such a city be governed? And how and when might transfer of control back to the host country be arranged? But as we begin to explore these questions, we must not lose sight of the fundamental insights that advocates of the free market underestimate. The win-win agreements that we see in well-functioning markets are possible only when there is a strong, credible government that can establish the rules. In places where these rules are not present, it could take centuries for locals to bootstrap themselves from bad rules to good. By creating new zones through partnerships at the national level, good rules can spread more quickly, and when they do, the benefits can be huge.

The world’s fortunate citizens must be able to provide assistance when disasters like the earthquake in Haiti strike, but we must also be wary of the practical and moral limits of aid. When the roles of benefactor and supplicant are institutionalised, both parties are diminished. In the case of Haiti, if nations in the region created just two charter cities, they could house the entire population of that country. Senegal has offered Haitians the opportunity to return to the home “of their ancestors.” “If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region,” a Senegal government spokesman said. Outside of the extraordinary circumstances of a crisis, the role of partner is better for everyone. And there are millions of people seeking partnerships around the world. Helping people build them successfully is the opportunity of the century

Hong Kong: the first charter city?

Hong Kong was a successful example of a special zone that could serve as a model for charter cities. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the only place in China where Chinese workers could enter partnerships with foreign workers and companies. Many of the Chinese who moved to Hong Kong started in low-skill jobs, making toys or sewing shirts. But over time their wages grew along with the skills that they gained working with educated managers, and using modern technologies and working practices.

Over time they acquired the values and norms that sustain modern cities. As a result, Hong Kong enjoyed rapid economic growth—in 1960, the average income was around £2,500; by 1997, it was around £20,000.

Even if it had wanted to, the Chinese government acting alone could not have offered this opportunity. The credibility of rules developed over centuries by the British government was essential in attracting the foreign investment, companies and skilled workers that let these low-skill immigrants lift themselves out of poverty. As in Mauritius, authority rested ultimately with the British governor general, but most of the police and civil servants were Chinese. And the benefits demonstrated in Hong Kong became a model for reform-minded leaders in China itself.

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